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I can still recall the wonder I felt when atoms were described to us in science class –many, many years ago. The idea that the solid object I could see in front of me, the wood of my desk, was actually, on one level, moving, was just remarkable. Of course, as with most science, it’s not quite that simple, but zoomed in far enough, the particles that make up the wood are, in fact, in motion.

So when we think about nanotechnology, it’s the scale that’s magical. It’s still an observation and application of existing science and technology, to chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering. But it’s all very, very, very small.

How small? From nano.gov: “It’s hard to imagine just how small nanotechnology is. One nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or 10-9 of a meter. Here are a few illustrative examples:

  • There are 25,400,000 nanometers in an inch
  • A sheet of newspaper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
  • On a comparative scale, if a marble were a nanometer, then one meter would be the size of the Earth

Though it wasn’t Nikola Tesla who first described the idea of manipulating things
on such a minute scale, there’s a parallel to be drawn. Tesla accurately, and with almost too much accuracy, predicted the smart phone. Richard Feynman, in 1959, described a process in which scientists would be able to manipulate and control individual atoms and molecules. Not too long ago, scientists realized that certain crystals actually existed across time and space, which, if you consider the space-time continuum, isn’t that far out there. From princeton.edu news: “Ordinary crystals such as diamonds, quartz or ice are made up of molecules that spontaneously arrange into orderly three-dimensional patterns. The sodium and chlorine atoms in a crystal of salt, for example, are spaced at regular intervals.

nanotechnology probe treating red blood cell

“In time crystals, however, atoms are arranged in patterns not only in space, but also in time. One way this could happen is that the atoms in the crystal move at a certain rate. Were a time crystal of ice to exist, all of the water molecules would vibrate at an identical frequency. What is more the molecules would do this without any input from the outside world.”

What’s being explored with these crystals now is the manipulation of them, on a nano-scale, to, quite literally, time travel.  Of particular interest to science as regards nanotechnology is the biological aspect of it. This is because nature itself has perfected the art of performing at the nano-level. Many of the processes going on in your body right now are going on in the “nanosphere.” (I made that word up, I think.)

Hemoglobin, the protein the carries oxygen through the body in your blood, is 5.5 nanometers in diameter. A great challenge to medical science is the many issues that result from a lack of adequate oxygenation in the human body. While not all of these are a result of a lack or, or a failure of, the hemoglobin to carry enough oxygen, being able to influence its carrying capacity would be one path of therapy for people whose bodies are starved for oxygen.

DNA is about 2 nanometers in diameter  – and DNA is deoxyribonucleic acid, a molecule (the “double helix”) that carries the genetic instructions for the development, functioning, growth and reproduction of all known organisms – including many viruses. So perhaps that will give you an idea of how significant this study can be right now, when a virus is manipulating us and our lives.

From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/: “Nanoparticles offer unique physical properties that have associated benefits for drug delivery. These are predominantly due to the particle size (which affects bioavailability and circulation time), large surface area to volume ratio (enhanced solubility compared to larger particles), tunable surface charge of the particle with the possibility of encapsulation, and large drug payloads that can be accommodated. These properties, which are unlike bulk materials of the same compositions, make nanoparticulate drug delivery systems ideal candidates to explore in order to achieve and/or improve therapeutic effects. This review presents a broad overview of the application of nanosized materials for the treatment of common viral infections.”

Innovative technologies as concept in science and medicine. Mixed media

In other words, nanoparticles offer the promise of less, more targeted, more virus specific treatment for a variety of the virus-caused plagues human, and animal, and plants are all vulnerable to.

Granted, there is an alarming side to all this – particularly when you consider how powerful such tiny particles can be, and the fact that they can be delivered without being easily detected. But there’s also unlimited potential, in such diverse areas as materials and processes (fabric, coatings, paints, colorings); electronics and IT; energy; environmental remediation; even transportation – and beyond.

And here I thought atoms were amazing!

Nancy Roberts